Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
March 8, 2011, 1:37 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , ,

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has always sounded like about the most boring book on earth to me: a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat? That’s it? Something about my summary of the plot, the book’s cover, its winning of the Booker (a prize against which I am firmly and unreasonably set) kept me from reading Life of Pi until I wound up in Tetovo, a city two hours from my town, with nothing else to read.

I am probably the last English-speaking person on Earth to read this book, so I’ll keep my plot summary brief. Life of Pi is about Pi Patel, a boy who grows up the son of zookeepers in India and who explores, to the chagrin of those around him, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity to equal depth. Patel’s family plans a move to Canada, closing their zoo and bringing many of the animals with them in order to sell them to zoos in America. The author, Yann Martel, ostensibly interviews Patel in Canada, where he has made a home and a family after being the sole survivor of the shipwreck that dismantled his family’s plans.

The first story we hear of Pi’s shipwreck, the story that takes up most of the narrative, is the one in which he ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. Surrounded by “the vomit of a dyspeptic ship” (101), Pi has to face first the terrors of his lifeboat mates and second the terrors of the Pacific Ocean, and for days watches as the hyena works over the zebra and orangutan before itself being eaten by Richard Parker.

The book is mostly concerned with the day-to-day life on a lifeboat, with Pi training Richard Parker so that he realizes who is the dominant animal on board, and learning to fish and gather fresh water.

Only at two points in the story, towards the end of the lifeboat narrative, did I feel that things shifted beyond the realm of the possible (and in a story about a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger, it’s impressive that there were only two points I felt this way), and these incidents themselves became understandable at novel’s end. When Pi is mysteriously blinded for several days and speaks with a Frenchman, also blind, whose lifeboat bumps into his own, and when he and Richard Parker land on a carnivorous island, the story began to fall apart, to draw itself as a whole into question.

That’s the point, of course, and when Pi is interviewed at end by representatives of the shipping company, he reveals the possibility of a second story. The question the shipping agents and the reader are left with is which story is more believable, and which story do we more want to believe? The answer for me, and I suspect for most, is that the tiger story is not the believable one, but is the one I want to believe and will believe, simply because the horrors of an enclosed life with a Bengal tiger do not approach the horrors in the second version Pi tells.

Martel at end doesn’t seem to trust the reader entirely, having the shipping agents go through a list of “this incident is really this incident, this animal is really this person” that added nothing to the story and could have been done without. And part of his essential message, “people can be worse than animals” is so simple, so obvious, when stated flat-out that it reduces what he achieves in the book, which is more than any summary can suggest. When I read Pi’s second version of the story I felt like I’d been knocked down, as I had to backpedal through the novel reimagining incident after incident through the lens of this second story, knowing above all that I wanted to “know” only the first version of the story.

The ways Martel plays with the idea of narrative, first through his framing of the story as he seeks out Patel for interviews, and then through Pi’s telling and retelling of his story, are easy enough to spot, but fun to experience. Life of Pi wasn’t the book I expected it to be, which I mean in all the best ways possible.

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I loved this book! But why didn’t the carnivorous island destroy the oar that Pi used to keep the boat in place? It’s been a while since I’ve read this so I have little more than that to say, but I’m glad that Life of Pi subverted your expectations!

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

haha i didn’t think of that one. once i got to the end i figured i’d give the whole carnivorous island thing a break – like, “he’s making it up, this island is ridiculous, but if it makes him feel better to tell this story…”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I haven’t read it either and I got to admit, I don’t feel like doing it in the near future. As you said, there is something not appealing about the whole story.

Comment by Elena

i hope you’ll give it a try. i spent years not wanting to read it because the plot didn’t sound attractive, but like i wrote…it’s a great book and far more interesting than a plot summary suggests.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I remember really enjoying reading this but it hasn’t stayed with me. I did find the end quite intriguing — but not enough that I’d pick it up again.

Comment by Rebecca Reid

yeah, i enjoyed it but i doubt i’ll ever reread it. like i wrote, i found some of the things he did pretty interesting but all so on the surface. even though i could see martel gearing up to just crush my heart at the end, though, i still feel so sad when i think back on the second version of the story.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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I’ve not read this book. Every time I get a gift card to Barnes and Noble, I debate buying this book, and everytime I’m at the library I debate checking the book out. I’ve always heard really good things about the book, but it still just doesn’t interest me. Maybe I just need to suck it up and check it out next time.

Comment by Jackie

i read many years ago and thought it one of best books i’d ever read–it was imaginative and so original. my takeaway is that book was also about the nature of faith and belief-the dual narratives illustrate that all religions are telling the same story and its a matter of choosing which version you believe to be the truth. that’s where faith enters the picture; very allegorical.

Comment by jdubya

[…] Before the War (02/28/11) Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude (02/28/11) Yann Martel – Life of Pi (02/22/11) George Orwell – Animal Farm (02/21/11) Paula McLain – The Paris Wife […]

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